Down and out.
Beat up and sometimes bloody.
The stories in “American Salvage” dig down in the land of meth, junkyards, mud, Jim Beam, Vicodin, working men and working women and rusted El Caminos.
These are raw lives on edge. Or on the edge.
The feeling is you are an invisible interloper, given a chance to tour a tough and gruff world of hard surfaces and pain, where progress means just getting through the day. These people are making do. The scenery isn’t scenery—it’s whatever the land coughs up. In an interview (bkish.com), Campbell says she only writes about what’s familiar. “I’m sort of a scaredy-cat writer. I don’t write about anything unless I know it pretty well,” she said.
If so—and the stories grab you so hard by the throat, her claim must be true—Campbell doesn’t insulate herself from the real world.
A few favorite first lines:
From “Storm Warning:”
“Big Bop stood at the prow of Doug’s sixteen-foot MerCruiser with the rebuilt302 engine and offered up a cold, dripping can. Doug kept his right hand on the wheel and caught the beer left-handed with a wet smack.”
From “The Burn:”
“After ten at night you had to prepay for gas at the station in Plainwell, and Jim Lobretto didn’t realize how much his empty two-gallon can stank of fuel until he got it inside.”
The landscape is harsh, but Campbell’s characters are no less compelling for their heart and their desires. Violence lingers close by and rises up without warning, as it does in “King Sole’s American Salvage.”
You wince reading the opening of “The Inventor,” as a thirteen-year-old girl gets hit by a car and finds herself injured on the roadside, staring at her broken fibula. A man in hunter’s camouflage gets out of the car and comes to her aid. “Her heart pounds as he leans close, pounds harder when she sees the other side of his face, the scar, chin to temple, edged in white, a swath of flesh so raw-looking it seems as though it might melt and drip on her. She cannot back away, so she wishes momentarily to die, or at least to faint.” The story switches to the hunter’s point of view and you slowly come to realize that the two have a common friend and common tragedy in their past. Brilliant.
“Boar Taint” involves a trek to buy a severely underwhelming, dinged-up and mucked-up hog. You watch a woman carry out her plan on behalf of her husband, Ernie.
“The boar hog was advertised on a card at the grocery store for only twenty-five dollars, but the Jentzen farm was going to be a long, slow drive, farther down LaSalle Road than Jill had traveled, past where the blacktop gives way to gravel and farther past, where it twists and turns and becomes a rutted two track. Ernie was finishing the milking when Jill hooked up the stock trailer. He had given her directions already, but before she pulled away, he came out and stood beside the truck and studied her, the way he’d done when she went to Ann Arbor last time. They’d been married almost a year, but maybe he hadn’t been sure she was coming back.”
Campbell’s voice is authoritative. She’s as much reporter as writer.
Campbell sees human struggles and brutality and thinks “these are people too and their lives need to be told.”
The result is up-close portraits of true grit.
No gloss, no sheen—just muscle moving bone.